Snooker Betting: O'Sullivan will have to be at top of his game to reach final
Eurosport's David Hendon reckons good value Stephen Hendry will challenge the Rocket at the Belfast event.
Ronnie O'Sullivan may have ended last season as world champion for a third time but the Rocket does not have a favourable draw for the first of the new campaign's ranking events.
O'Sullivan, currently trading at [4.5] to win the title, will face 1997 world champion Ken Doherty in his first match if the Dubliner first beats Gerard Greene.
Doherty is one of those cagey, crafty players capable of mixing it up between attack and defence that O'Sullivan notoriously dislikes playing. Ronnie would rather take part in open games, not be tied up in tactical knots.
They've played 22 times and O'Sullivan's lead is relatively narrow, 13-9.
It's worth making the point, though, that Doherty is 4-4 on career head-to-head with Greene so no certainty to come through the first round.
If O'Sullivan does clear his opening hurdle he still faces tough opposition in the likely form of Crucible semi-finalist Joe Perry or lightning-fast potter Jamie Cope, already a two-time ranking event finalist, in the last 16.
Marco Fu of Hong Kong, who beat O'Sullivan in last year's Grand Prix final, could be waiting in the quarter-finals.
Shaun Murphy, Ding Junhui and local favourite Mark Allen, a semi-finalist last year, are all in the same half of the draw.
So although O'Sullivan is the favourite, he will have to be at the top of his game just to reach the final.
Also, he tends not to get himself as motivated for events such as this as compared to the big three - the World Championship, UK Championship and Wembley Masters.
Of course, Ronnie is capable of winning when nowhere near his best but his half is full of quality where picking a finalist is fraught with difficulty. The top half is strong but, on paper, looks easier.
Stephen Maguire could play Fergal O'Brien, who he beat 9-5 in last year's Belfast final, in his opening match.
At first glance, Maguire looks to have a clear run to the semis but his preparation hasn't been ideal: six weeks ago, the Scot cracked a rib playing badminton.
Leaving aside the fact that this is not the most glamorous of injuries, it has affected his practice. Bending and stretching has proved painful and this may take its toll over the course of a week long tournament.
There are two names in the top half I would suggest following: Mark Selby and Stephen Hendry.
Selby, currently [9.0] for the title, has turned into a hardened match player over the last couple of years.
Last season, he won the Masters and Welsh Open and reached the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters, UK Championship and China Open.
Hendry, despite all his success, is driven by a desire to stay at the top of the game for as long as possible. He suffered a mishap earlier in the summer when the club where he practised throughout his career was shut down but he now has a table at home and you can be sure he will have been putting the work in over the last couple of months.
Hendry represents good value at [28.0] to win his first ranking title in three and a half years.
One qualifier worth following is Liang Wenbo of China, who played kamikaze snooker at the Crucible last season - going for pretty much everything - and still got to the quarter-finals.
Over a shorter distance tournament such as the Belfast event, he could be a real handful. He starts out against the game's elder statesman, Steve Davis, whose mastery of safety play remains unrivalled.
Despite this tactical superiorit,y Davis, usually a slow starter to the season, will have his work cut out, as will anyone who comes up against the fearless Liang, currently [55.0] for the title.
Jimmy White, now 65th in the world rankings, has won three matches to qualify and will be match sharp when he takes on Barry Hawkins, who hasn't played competitively since the World Championship four months ago.
On this basis, and not just for sentimental reasons, White could be worth backing when they clash cues on Monday.
The first TV match sees Belfast's own Joe Swail taking on Mark Davis, who though an experienced journeyman rarely plays well in front of the cameras.
After this, O'Brien is up against Michael Holt, whose sometimes flaky temperament can cause punters all manner of agony. Holt has won their two previous meetings and is more than capable of turning on the style - but he is just as capable of going to pieces.
If you're looking for value in the first round, plump for Adrian Gunnell, a steady if unspectacular sort, who could upset Dominic Dale, a player whose career has declined markedly since he moved to Vienna at the end of last year.
And Nigel Bond, vastly experienced though he is, may come unstuck against Stuart Pettman, who fired in two centuries in qualifying for the final stages.
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